Thursday, 31 January 2019

REVIEW: Edward II - The Casa Theatre, Liverpool

It seems like an excellent match; Grin Theatre, Liverpool’s longest-running LGBT+ theatre company doing a scratch version of Marlowe’s 1594-published Edward II. The story of a king undone by his love of another man is not regularly staged, despite the beauty of the text and the ever-relevant themes of forbidden love, the consequences of power, the state versus the Church and the dangers of class and social mobility.

The point on which the true life plot turns, is Edward II’s infatuation with the low-born Gaveston, which disrupts the traditional ways in which value and importance are measured and which pits the King against all his lords - with conflict, flight and ultimately death following. Marlowe’s created world is an amoral and cruel one, where everyone follows their own selfish desires and ambitions and where all consequently come undone, as the Medieval wheel of fortune turns full circle.

This is very much a modern production, immediately evinced by the suited and booted nobility, the ever present use of mobile phones and the stripped-down stage; a wooden chair symbolises the throne and there are judiciously used, often comedy, props - including children’s plastic toy guns and an outsized mitre. Simple lighting changes and composer Kenny Rainford’s intermittent but evocative musical accompaniment (including a snatch of rave music) give a certain smooth and contemporary veneer to a bare bones production.

The gender blind casting is effective with Christine Corser’s Countess of Lancaster/Lightborne being imperious as Lancaster and compellingly seductive as Edward’s Villanelle-like assassin – and much of the humour is camp, mocking, gleeful and almost panto-esque in its physicality.

The play is often referred to as an ‘actor's play’ but here, the play isn’t solely the vehicle for the virtuosity of the lead actor (Joseph McGhee) but is truly an ensemble piece with no one role outshining another. If I have one cavil it is that Edward’s emotional arc is perhaps flattened out and so he doesn’t quite reach tragic victim status – or receive as much audience sympathy as we expect.

The key strength of this performance is the clarity of the storytelling – diction enunciation, tone and emphasis are pretty much uniformly clean and crisp, so Marlow’s gritty yet poetic dialogue is precisely rendered. There is a touch of Northern Broadsides in the delivery of the dialogue too, with a range of, largely, northern accents and a Scouse king. It’s a credit to director/adapter Will Cooper that his invented iambic prologue is very much in keeping with the spirit of the piece.

This production puts Edward’s death centre stage and is explicit, and the murder itself seems to mock his homosexuality – in an age when homosexuality was not recognised and sodomy was punishable by death. This drew some unexpected laughter from the audience – either through shock, embarrassment or because the showing of the killing is possibly too sudden, over the top and bordering on dark slapstick.

Clearly a lot of work has gone into adapting the play – from the creation of the prologue to the carefully choreographed use of the restricted space and tiny stage, and the production is far more polished than its ‘scratch’ status would indicate.

It would be good to see this highly accessible, energetic and often playful production be allowed to blossom on a bigger stage.

Reviewer - Tracy Ryan
on - 30/1/19

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